The Road To Gobblers Knob
From Ecuador to the Arctic, Francis Jones hears about the adventures of Geoff Hill
LISTEN as Geoff Hill recounts the trip of a lifetime.
Geoff Hill has been the willing victim of several travel-hungry seductions. Long-distance affairs one and all, the first exotic trek brought him from Delhi to Belfast.
Second time round he succumbed to the classic allure of America's Route 66.
But it is his latest adventure, travelling the pan-American Highway on a Triumph motorbike, which has been Geoff’s greatest passion, a relationship of profound highs and lows, an enthralling, invigoratingly dangerous liaison with the open road.
‘When we're children, every day is an adventure. You get on your bike and go off anxious to discover, to see what the day will bring,’ says Hill.
‘When we get older we get so tied down with mortgages, bills, dry rot and rising damp, the stuff we surround ourselves with.
'To get on a motorcycle, look at the horizon and wonder what’s beyond it, that’s liberation. In that moment you are the boy on a bike, once again.’
Intrepid, determined, ever so slightly foolhardy and imbued with an irrepressible, wide-eyed wonder for the world, Hill is cut from classic adventurer cloth, the sort of person you read about in Boy's Own stories or who features in TV documentaries, embroiled in extraordinary escapades.
That steadfast sense of adventure would serve him well as he travelled the pan-American Highway on motorbike.
The distance, from southern Chile to northern Alaska, is over 16,000 miles, the climate and conditions extreme: desert, frozen wastes, tarmac roads and dirt tracks, with everything in between.
It’s such a challenge, in fact, that nobody before had ever completed the journey.
‘Why did I do it? Well, as Hillary said when he climbed Everest, probably because "it’s there". I was lying in bed one night and I picked up The Adventure Motorcycling Handbook, opening it on a chapter on the pan-American Highway, the longest road in the world.
'I thought "wow, that sounds amazing". I went out looking for books on it the next day and there weren’t any. I thought, well it’s about time I wrote one.’
Although conceived in an instant, preparation for the journey took considerably longer, almost two years of planning, of careful contemplation of scenario and circumstance, and an avalanche of paperwork.
‘I’d learned from the Delhi to Belfast ride that it involves a huge amount of logistics and bureaucracy,’ confirms Geoff.
‘On that occasion, and with dazzling insight, I delegated most of the preparatory tasks. This time I did most of it on my own and thought I was going to have to do it all, until Clifford came along.’
Clifford Paterson, former Isle of Man TT winner and, most importantly, a man possessed of the same sense of adventure as Hill.
‘Clifford phoned, said he’d read Way To Go [Hill's document of his two prior motorcycle journeys] and would like to meet me. He worked at Camphill, the community for people with mental and physical difficulties, so the next day I went down there to see him.
'The following day he phoned, wondering "would I be interested in company for the trip?" He then added, "I’m not gay, I just fancy the adventure!"
'Of course I was happy to have company on the trip, and my wife Cate was reassured. She’d been worried about me making the trip on my own.’
As Hill is quick to point out, it is not the adventurer, but those they leave behind who exhibit the deeper courage.
‘It wasn’t an easy thing for me to do, but it was a much harder thing for Cate to let me do it. In the end the trip took three and a half months. It was a long time to be away from home.’
No matter how meticulously planned, no journey of such duration could be entirely free of trial or tribulation. Indeed an adversity-free adventure is no adventure at all.
‘There were points almost every day when we faced the possibility that we may not complete the journey.
'All the way through the Atacama Desert, possibly the driest place on earth, the engine warning light was on and the engine kept cutting in and out.
'You’re stranded in 2,000 miles of nothing. If the engine stops you’re dead. Only later did we discover that the fuel was contaminated with diesel.
'Al Shepherd, the American astronaut, when he was sitting on the launch pad for one of the early space shots, repeated the mantra, ‘Dear Lord, let me not f**k up.’ That became known as ‘Shepherd’s Prayer’. I found myself chanting that a lot.’
The safety afforded by the Shepherd’s prayer lasted only so long - as far as Colombia.
‘Pretty much everybody advised us not to go to Colombia,’ admits Hill.
Yet, having considered the multitude of warnings of Colombia’s lawlessness, off they went. Ironically, the danger they encountered there was mostly of their own making.
‘We’d set off from the border going hard and fast, hearts in mouths. I went into a 59mph corner at 60, braked too hard and hit some gravel,' recalls Hill, a pained grimace crossing his face.
‘The next thing I know I’m bouncing down the road on my head - thankfully with helmet on. It was a miracle I wasn’t killed. I lost most of the skin of my left forearm and knuckles. My hips were skinned and bruised, and my shoulder knackered.’
It was the Colombian people who came to the rescue.
‘The people were absolutely incredible,' acknowledges Hill. ‘Within two minutes a car stopped and the driver phoned the cops. About a dozen of them arrived, they stopped a truck driver and asked him could he take us north and, even though it was nine hours out of his way, he said "yeah, no problem".
'We hauled the bike into the back of the lorry, looking a complete wreck, and I crawled, in incredible pain, in behind it.
'Nine hours later, we arrived at the home of some friends of friends, and for the next week were looked after by some of the kindest people in civilisation.’
Hill and Paterson are the heroes of our story, but honourable mention must go to the motorcycles, not least Hill's incredible, indestructible Triumph.
‘The day after the crash, the local Honda bike dealership came along and took a look at the bike, saying, "yeah, we might be able to do something with it".
'They straightened the forks, put together the front housing, which had shattered, and charged us £70 for what at home would be a £700 job.
'Having said that, when we later got the bike to the Triumph dealership in San Diego they informed me that they wouldn’t have ridden it to the shops, never mind through Colombia.
'The forks were still out of alignment, the front axle was bent, the brake rotors were bent... but incredibly, the bike had kept going.’
They made it to Mexico, and with resort to a little bluff and bluster, overcoming a major paperwork faux pas to pass border controls and reach the USA.
From here on in, and with the exception of a close encounter with a moose - ‘we’d reached Canada and were riding along one day when a huge female moose jumped onto the road right in front of me’ - circumstances became somewhat less arduous.
‘I remember one particularly glorious day we were in the pine woods above San Francisco, and stopped at Alice’s Restaurant.
'It’s a big bikers hangout. We arrived to find hundreds of bikers, and spent hours, yakking away. They helped us realise just how lucky we were to be able to go on this astonishing trip.
'We finally left, riding down into San Francisco, the smell of the pine in our nostrils. We approached the Golden Gate Bridge in the most glorious sunshine. It was one of the greatest moments in my adult life.’
After three and a half months on the road, Hill reached his Alaskan journey’s end, the titular mound that is Gobblers Knob.
‘As one famous traveller said, "Being in a car is like watching a movie. On a motorbike you’re actually in a movie." At the end I felt "wow, what an incredible thing to have done."'
The Road To Gobblers Knob by Geoff Hill, published by Blackstaff Press, launches on Tuesday 17 April in The Black Box, Hill Street, Belfast, 6pm